5 ways for the military to improve female retention from a Naval officer and mom.
As an active duty military mother, I jumped for joy when I read the Navy's new maternity leave policy giving women up to 18 weeks of paid leave after having a baby. I believe that this is a huge step in the right direction for the Navy in its quest for becoming a more competitive employer, and to retain top talent. But I don't believe it will attract more women to stay because women aren't leaving the military due to short maternity leave. It's the pre-ordained military schedule that can make Navy life and motherhood so hard to balance.
My husband and I both graduated from the Naval Academy and both currently serve in the fleet. After several years working alongside many talented and ambitious female sailors who also hope to become mothers, I believe it's crucial for the military to find new and creative ways to retain the women it has trained and developed.
As it stands today, mixing Navy life with motherhood is daunting. Take for example, the career path of a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) (read: ship driver).
In Navy life, sailors go through multi-year periods where they deploy frequently and are away for six-month to year-long blocks at a time. Then, there are other periods when you are stationed stateside during a “shore tour." These schedules are set in stone by the military, and make women and men go through complex calculations to decide if and when the timing will be right to have a baby.
The first shore tour is a really a female sailor's first opportunity to start a family. This gives her three years to get pregnant, take her maternity leave, and enjoy quality time with her family. As someone currently in this position, I can say it's pretty great! But, not all couples are ready or able to have a baby early in this window, and as your naval career progresses, it's harder and harder to decide when to make time for baby.
The breaking point for me was when I began to realize what lies ahead for our family if things don't change. The Navy requires you to fill out a Family Care Plan upon having a child, which assigns someone to look after your child when you and your spouse both have to go out to sea at the same time. It's this factor, not the Navy's maternity leave policy that forced the question “is my desire to serve the country worth spending these large chunks of time away from my daughter?"
For me, the cost outweighed the benefit. I still plan to work full time when I leave the military, but while my Mom may help out with my daughter on some work trips, she won't be raising my child for six months while my husband and I are at sea. And, as I shop for a job in the public sector, it isn't the maternity policy at Google that's attracting me, or the free lunches, but instead, the feasibility of raising a family throughout a career. I'm looking for a future employer that can accommodate the reality that women have children, and that Millennials, in our increasingly digital age, want greater flexibility over where and when they do their jobs.
It's a hard problem that the Navy faces, because the mission always has to come first, and sea and shore time should be equally shared across the force. I still think there are significant ways that the Navy can improve female retention:
1. Create a More Balanced Deployment Cycle. The submarine force has been able to maintain a six-month deployment timeline, whereas ships such as Aircraft Carriers and Ballistic Missile Defense Ships have lengthened their average time at sea to over nine months. This problem has reverberated deeper than female retention and is a major fleet problem. Reducing the amount of sea time will allow Navy families to increase their resilience.
2. Make the Career Path Tailorable. The way the Surface Warfare career path is right now, sea and shore time is grouped into three-four year blocks. Allowing more flexibility within this construct would allow individuals to create a career that works for them.
3. Expand the Navy's Career Intermission Pilot Program (CIPP). Naval personnel can currently apply to take up to three years off in order to pursue civilian opportunities or start a family. Through this program you retain full health benefits as well as a monthly stipend and in return owe the Navy two months for every one month you take off. This program fits some situations and I believe it's a step in the right direction, but the Navy should explore other options as well, such as the ability to transfer in and out of the reserves (maybe allowing personnel to take a longer hiatus), or the option to leave without pay and return without an added obligation.
4. Continue to Improve as a Family-Friendly Culture. Increased maternity leave and TRICARE adding coverage of breast pumps are positive steps in creating a more family-friendly culture within the Navy, but there's more to be done. Personally, I had to voice my right to have a pumping space multiple times before I was finally presented the solution of an equipment storage closet; which I gladly accepted over the women's restroom. In healthcare, many fertility treatment programs are only available to TRICARE beneficiaries and not the sponsor, which can be a problem if women wait until completing their sea time before starting a family.
5. Explore More Flexible Work Options. While stationed on a ship or submarine or dealing with classified material, sailors clearly need to be on a military installation, but there are many positions where a physical presence isn't required. Increased opportunities for telework and flexible scheduling would allow families to create a routine that allows them to be successful in both their work and personal lives.
To stop the flow of talented women out of the Navy, we must stay focused on why these women are leaving. Only then will the military be able to retain the intelligent, motivated, and experienced women that are helping it to thrive.